I think the key is really two approaches to take. One is a technological, supply-side solution, and the other is a cultural or value orientated, demand-side solution. And what I mean by the first one is what China is already doing, this is what the government feels comfortable with, it’s finding smart, new technologies that provide much more energy in the future, particularly solar and wind, and using those new technologies, improving the lifestyle of people so that they can actually consume more in the future. And because the technology is so good, hopefully this will be not so much of a strain.
Then, though, you really do have the question of if that’s really going to work. And I’m very doubtful, as what technologies often do is that they make things more efficient, but they also tend to actually create new demands. And you end up solving one problem only to create two new problems, which is in a way kind of what happened to the world. But there comes a point in a finite world where you can’t keep doing that anymore. No government ever wants to say to their own people, ‘Consume less.’ It doesn’t matter whether it’s a communist government or a democratic government. You can’t get elected and keep the support of the people if you say, ‘Tomorrow you’ll have less than you have today.’
It’s all about trying to make sustainable consumption more attractive than excess, unsustainable consumption. And the only way you can do that is a change in the way people think. That could be a religious thing, it could be a philosophical thing, it could be an education thing, it could be a propaganda thing. Certainly it could be a media thing. You can’t give up on the technology. But at the same time, there’s a tendency at the moment in China and the whole world to just put all our eggs in the technology basket, hoping 10 years from now, 20 years from now, the scientists will have solved all our problems, which strikes me as rather complacent and potentially dangerous.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
A surprising element in the book was learning just how much power lies in local governments, and not in the central government.
It certainly surprised me when I first came to China. Although now I realise how much it’s a feature of modern China that although we think of the Chinese government as authoritarian, it only applies in some cases. This is definitely not a totalitarian state that controls every element of a person’s life, but China is authoritarian in some things. Namely it’s very, very good at allocating large sums of money and encouraging economic expansion. But when it comes to restraint and constraint, I think it really struggles, and much more than people in the outside world realise.